In March, Vera Wang traveled to Paris for a work-pleasure trip. The work aspect focused on vendor meetings, and the pleasure, merely being in the city she loves dearly while taking in shows of some of her favorite designers — Rick Owens, Celine’s Hedi Slimane, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia. Wang isn’t only a designer, she’s also a major fashion fan and consumer, and reveled in the role of observer. Yet it struck her at Owens, the first show she attended, that she was sitting there amidst a pack of people who had just de-planed from Milan, where the coronavirus had started to explode. “I thought maybe the other three I planned to go to wouldn’t exist. But they did,” Wang said.
That quartet of shows anchors in her memory the waning days of life as we knew it, before the coronavirus changed everything. Now, she’s trying to make sense of it all while focusing on her employees at a workplace gone dark. “Their whole livelihood is hanging on my company,” Wang said. “I never forget that.”
WWD: Your show was last month. Do you believe how the world has changed since then?
Vera Wang: The show seems prehistoric. It was barely six-and-a-half weeks ago and the whole world has turned upside down. Think about it, is that crazy?
WWD: It certainly is.
V.W.: I mean, it’s just all crazy. And I think they’re shutting New York down further. Are people still riding the subway?
WWD: Many people still have to go to work — the people we’re all depending on right now. Medical workers, the essential retail people, police.
V.W.: The necessary work, caregivers, that kind of job. There’s a Shakespearean quality to all of this.
WWD: Shakespearean and science fiction — a massive contagion that stops the world from functioning. On that note, let’s turn to the functioning of Vera Wang, the business.
V.W.: Part of our business is not the normal sense of the business being in bridal, our clients who are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
WWD: Trying to have. I assume that most spring brides have postponed or canceled.
V.W.: Postponed. We’ve tried to handle it in an intelligent way. We are in a very emotional part of the fashion business, which is weddings. These people — this is their dream moment. I’m sure that having to cancel or postpone a wedding must be very, very hard. I can’t even imagine.
WWD: The store closures. You closed the stores, and the whole company, before it was mandatory, right?
V.W.: We had many reasons. One was obviously based on the [early] government guidelines. We also have sample rooms that are, as you know, extraordinary, in New York. And many of those people are not young people, not that this virus doesn’t strike young people. At first, we closed everything except for brides because at the beginning, weddings were still going on, or some brides were hopeful that they would. We have two factories. One is in Akron, Ohio, and one is in Wellington, Fla. And of course, the couture gowns are made in the atelier. We kept skeletal staffs on staggered schedules.
WWD: And the ready-to-wear?
V.W.: A lot of it is done in-house. We have a whole production floor. You know me. For the collection, if I’m going to put it out there, whether it’s a skirt or an evening gown, it has to be of a certain quality. And not everyone is qualified to do that in America, or really in all fairness, in New York specifically. It used to be an art form, you know, on Seventh Avenue.
WWD: I know. Back to the working situation, you closed everything except for bridal production.
V.W.: We kept skeletal staffs on staggered schedules.
WWD: But that didn’t last?
V.W.: No. We felt not only the social responsibility for [all] the people who work for us, but also some of those sample hands, they’re really artists and they don’t fall between that 20-to-40 range. That’s part of where their talent comes in, and why they’re at a couture level, the education, the experience. So we were especially worried about them. But I worry about everyone. I have a lot of young marrieds working in my company, some of whom are pregnant, and a lot of marrieds with multiple kids. It’s sort of like a family or a village in which you have such a wide range of employees.
WWD: Fashion certainly takes a village.
V.W.: And I’ll tell you something, a lot of the sewers wanted to work from home. They said, “you give us a machine and a dummy; we would like to continue to work creatively.” I think they feel — not frustrated, I think they feel disconnected and discombobulated like we all do. They love their work. They’re devastated.
WWD: The dedication is great but, given what those ladies do, working from home sounds complicated. Did you send out the mannequins?
V.W.: No. Something about it felt like, if other people have really shut down and we keep going in some way it feels, to me, just odd. And practically, how would it work? Who delivers the fabric? How does the conferencing go — “go a little bit wider on the left side versus the right?” When it’s done, what does the woman do with it? It didn’t make sense.
WWD: So everything shuttered, fairly early. You’re paying everybody, right?
V.W.: Yes. We are. Completely. We’re not firing people. Everybody is being paid. They didn’t ask for this. There’s no insurance coverage for this kind of thing. There’s no act-of-God insurance claim and all that kind of stuff that can help you. And whatever the government is going to do to give money back to everybody, I don’t know. We’ll see. [Wang spoke before the White House and Senate agreed on the $2 trillion stimulus package, that now must pass the House of Representatives.]
WWD: How long can you maintain that?
V.W.: We’re sort of playing it by day to day, week to week, month to month, however you want to look at it. But we are trying very hard right now to sustain that for as long as we can.
WWD: That’s wonderful.
V.W.: Because many of these people, their whole livelihood is hanging on my company. I never forget that. I always say to people, if I hire them, “I chose you, but you chose, me too. I hope you know that I will do my best to honor what I can. It’s a two-way partnership. I’m not just your employer.” In my own humble way, I know that I’m responsible for people’s lives. That has never escaped me as an owner. These are people who work insane hours and give up a lot of their lives for me. I have to give that back.
WWD: It must be very stressful when the revenue shuts down.
V.W.: It is hard financially, there is no question about it. I mean, you have systems set up and your schedule set up and even though we’re not a huge company, we are a functioning company. We try to be human and look at these things as a human being, not just as an owner of a company.
We are very tied into our staff in perhaps a more intimate way than a huge company. Not that they’re not, but we see so many of our employees on a daily basis, which might not be the case if you’re in a multibillion-dollar company. And the fact that we deal with weddings and brides. It’s an emotional time for them, normally deliriously happy. But I’m sure this has caused a lot of heartbreak. You’ve picked your dress and you’ve picked your date and you’ve picked your venue and then, everything crashes to a halt.
WWD: And almost overnight. When we saw each other at Rick Owens’ show in Paris, Italy had started to implode, the shows were going on, life was going on.
V.W.: At Rick’s show, I sat with all of you who’d come in from Milan, and the question of safety hit me. I was in Paris to do some development work, with some vendors that are couture vendors. While I was there, I was lucky enough to see some people I’m friendly with, to go to their shows, not only out of support but because I adore what they do. And I said to myself, I said, are we sitting with the entire fashion industry? Everybody who just came from Milan?
WWD: But you weren’t deterred. What other shows did you attend?
V.W.: I saw Rick, I saw Hedi at Celine; I saw Pierpaolo, who’s my friend, at Valentino. And Balenciaga. I don’t know Demna personally, but they have been very good to me. They invited me and sent me this insanely beautiful bouquet of black flowers. Which now seems incredibly apropos, and what I like. I have to say that there were no phone-ins. I mean, whatever the style of the house, whatever message they were trying to convey, whatever scale of the business, you could see the effort, the thought behind the collection. Whether you like it or not is another story, but I could see it in every one of them.
WWD: I don’t think most designers phone it in. Most work hard to realize the vision.
V.W.: It was a very uplifting thing for me, because seeing shows in Europe is not something I regularly do. So it just was such an upbeat thing. But then, the Milan thing had already started and I kept asking if maybe all the shows would be canceled. After Rick, I thought maybe the other three I planned to go to wouldn’t exist. But they did. And I found that all the restaurants were filled.
WWD: Well, that’s changed.
V.W.: It seems like it was 30 years ago. I feel our fashion show in New York was three years ago.
WWD: It certainly does.
V.W.: I’m going to take it to another cosmic level. Will this change our whole perspective? We were on such ridiculous schedules. Half our team had to go for the Oscars and a day-and-a-half later, we had our show in New York. And we’re not Louis Vuitton. It was hard on us. Maybe this will make us reevaluate the speed at which fashion was moving. I know I work very hard and my team kills themselves, but it just never stops. It’s relentless, it’s not like when you’re in film and you can make a film and check out for a year or two or eight months or do another project if you choose. In fashion, you have no such choice. We are on a relentless treadmill.
WWD: Overall, do you have a philosophical take on all of this?
V.W.: It’s like the bubonic plague. If you believe “The Tudors” series, Anne Boleyn had it. People in those days were isolated out of London into the country. We’re now doing the same thing; everyone I know ran to the Hamptons or wherever they could run to, to get out of the city.
I don’t know that they are entirely clear on the cause [of the virus]. I don’t believe that one species of bat jumping to another infected the food market. I think there is something far bigger going on than we can understand. The speed at which this has spread and the way it’s in the air — it’s so frightening. This isn’t only about hand-washing, it’s about inhalants. What are our lungs taking in? How do you know what you’re breathing, let alone eating, let alone who has handled the food? I’m not a scientist from Harvard or MIT or Johns Hopkins, but that’s what I think. And do you know what else that I am very aware of? The viral infection, the illness, is only part of it. But it’s the mental state, too, where you feel displaced, that’s just as frightening as the physical threat. We are not a country, America, that is used to being dictated to. I think we have always taken our freedom, not for granted, but it’s how we were all raised.
WWD: But we do take it for granted. Or we did.
V.W.: Locking everything down, bit by bit, city by city, state by state. I mean, the mental anguish this is causing is also astonishing and frightening, the depression and the fear, all of it.
V.W.: Everybody’s frightened, they’re confused. And we are not used to being told, “here’s the curfew” or “you can’t go here.” We’re just mentally, psychologically not used to having limitations on us like this.
WWD: Are you in New York now or or out in the Hamptons?
V.W.: I’m in Miami. I came directly from Paris.
WWD: Are you hopeful about all this?
V.W.: I don’t know about hopeful. What I really am feeling on a personal, human level, is that there seems to be some bigger message other than obvious and scientific. I’m not talking like a guru here, but something more spiritual and larger than perhaps what we as a planet and as human beings have been used to dealing with. It’s maybe forcing us to look at life in different ways, maybe at a slower pace. Maybe this forced slowing down will cause us to reevaluate the way we all live. I mean, we run around frantic.
WWD: This isn’t just about financial fallout, huge as that is. There are emotional investments, psychological investments, some of them specific to running each individual business.
V.W.: Absolutely. There is a human investment in the people who work for you like dogs. They work like dogs. They work hours and they stand there and they make these clothes. Everybody just assumes it’s easy to do, which it isn’t. Other people travel. They spend their lives commuting to Shenzhen and Vietnam and all these places where they’re manufacturing. I mean, it’s just a tough business. It’s tough.
WWD: It sure is.
V.W.: I know the world thinks of it as highly glamorous but for those of us in it, it’s not. I’m thrilled that so many of the women in our workroom wanted to work, even though we didn’t do it. They said, “please, we want to stay home and work, we don’t want to do nothing.” I’m very touched by that.
WWD: That says a great deal about you, too, about how they feel about you and what you’re doing.
V.W.: They know that I really care and that there’s no way I could do anything I do without them. They are the unsung heroes. They are not a movie star walking down the red carpet. They are the people standing there, ripping that dress apart, putting it back together.
WWD: And my God, are they talented.
V.W.: So talented. They’re artists. Every one of them is an artist.